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A Poets Manual

A Poet's Primer

Copyright ©2008 Margaret Hickey, All rights reserved

Here are some notes designed to help the poet with the technical side of writing poetry. Forgive us if we state the obvious – it may not be obvious to everyone! Following a few preliminary words about metre and rhyme schemes, we sketch the basic form of the following:




When we refer to measuring rhythm in verse we call it metre.

Words in the English language may be seen as being made up of long and short syllables. Where the stress falls when a word is spoken naturally is a long syllable, and where not is a short syllable. Thus, for example, the word ‘umbrella’ consists of a short, then a long, then a short syllable. The word ‘Dublin’ is made up of a long followed by a short syllable. In fact, lots of names of cities fall into that category; think of London, Naples, Sydney, Paris, Warsaw, Moscow, Auckland, Galway and so on. But then you get the opposite – a word consisting of a short syllable followed by a long: Madrid, Berlin, Tyrone, Loughrea.

We generally mark each syllable with a symbol written above it: the long is marked- and the short ˘.

Long ago, scholars took lines of verse and counted how many ‘feet’ there were in each line. The commonest types of ‘feet’ are:

And a few examples:

Iambic: remain, deduce, explain

Trochee: token, biscuit, comic

Anapaest: referee, authoress

Dactyl: bicycle, laughable, paradox

Spondee: nightfall, downturn, jukebox


[There are some more obscure ones. The pyrrhic (short short), tribrach (short short short), amphibrach (short long short), cretic (long short long), paeon (long short short short), bacchius (short long long long), ionic a minore (short short long long) and choriamb (long short short long), featured mainly in lyric poems.]


Here is the beginning of a 19th-century poem: Daffodils by William Wordsworth.


I wander’d lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills
When all at once I saw a crowd
A host of golden daffodils.

The verses can be dissected as follows:

I wan (1st iamb) der’d lone (2nd iamb) ly as (3rd iamb) a cloud (4th iamb)

That floats (1st iamb) on high (2nd iamb) o’er vales (3rd iamb) and hills (4th iamb)

When all (1st iamb) at once (2nd iamb) I saw (3rd iamb) a crowd (4th iamb)

A host (1st iamb) of gol (2nd iamb) den daff (3rd iamb) odils (4th iamb).


This is a perfectly consistent example of verse with four iambic feet to each line.
It all gets more complicated after this.


Small children have a natural love of rhyming and something in us loves a rhyme.

It is clear that the ancient traditions of many cultures relied, in a preliterate society, on passing down lore and stories orally. If a story is to be remembered and recited at length, rhythm and rhyme help enormously in the task.

The organisation of rhymes in a poem is called the rhyme scheme. The most basic way we classify the rhymes in a piece of poetry is to look at the last word of each verse and see which word it rhymes with. To simplify things, we call the last word of a verse rhyme a. If the last word of the second verse rhymes with it, we also call that a. If it doesn’t rhyme, then we call it b. Then on to the third verse. What does the last word rhyme with? The last word of the first verse? Then we are back to a. If not, it may rhyme with the last word of the second verse, in which case it’s b. And if it rhymes with neither, we call it c.

If the final syllable is accented, the rhyme is called ‘masculine’ as distinguished from the unaccented, or ‘feminine’ rhymes or endings.

Here is the beginning of one of Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Verses: Matilda.

Matilda told such dreadful lies
It made one gasp and stretch one’s eyes.
Her aunt, who, from her earliest youth,
Had kept a strict regard for truth,
Attempted to believe Matilda
The effort very nearly killed her.
And would have done so, had not she
Discovered this adversity,
For once, when at the close of day
Matilda, growing tired of play
And finding she was left alone
Went tiptoe to the telephone
And summoned the immediate aid
Of London’s noble fire brigade.

This poem consists of rhyming couplets, so the first two lines rhyme together, as do the next two and so on until the end. So this would be written out as a rhyme scheme: aa bb cc dd ee ff and so on.

Let’s look at the start of a slightly more complicated poem: The Glendalough Saint, by that famous poet Anonymous.

In Glendalough lived an old saint
Renowned for his learning and piety.
His manners were curious and quaint
And he looked upon girls with disparity.

But as he was fishin’ one day,
To catch him a fine big trout, sir,
Young Kathleen from over the way
Came to see what th’ould saint was about, sir.

The rhyme scheme here is abab for the first stanza, and the next stanza goes cdcd. And so on…

There is a deal more to be said about rhymes – half rhymes, internal rhymes and so on, but that goes beyond the scope of this primer.



Originally, this was a song intended to accompany a dance. More recently, a ballad is a single poem in short stanzas in which a story is related. Typically, the ballad will deal with a tragic love story, an episode from history or semi-historical events, or the pagan supernatural.

One of the most famous is Sir Patrick Spens which begins thus:

The king sits in Dunfermline toune,
Drinking the blude-reid wine:
‘O whar will I get a guid sailor,
To sail this schip of mine?’

Up and spak an eldern knicht,
Sat at the king’s richt kne:
‘Sir Patrick Spens is the best sailor,
That sails upon the se.’


This is verse-form invented by Edmund Clerihew Bentley, consists of two rhymed couplets, usually in the form of an epigrammatic comment on the character or career of a well-known person. Here are a couple of examples.


Sir James Jeans
Always says what he means;
He is really perfectly serious
About the Universe being Mysterious.

Sir Christopher Wren
Said, ‘I’m dining with some men.
If anyone calls,
Tell them I’m designing St Paul’s.


An envoi is the final stanza of a poem, addressed to a person (real or imagined) or commenting on the preceding poem.

The form of the envoi is not fixed, but generally the stanza is shorter than those that precede it, and it picks up on the rhymes or sounds of the main body of the poem.

For example, the early form known as the chant royal (used by French troubadours) consists of five eleven-line stanzas followed by a five-line envoi.

The rhyme scheme for the main stanzas goes ab ab cc edE.

The rhyme scheme for the final envoi goes ddedE.

A more recent poem by G K Chesterton uses a slightly different, but still very consistent rhyme scheme.


A Ballade of Suicide

The gallows in my garden, people say,
Is new and neat and adequately tall;
I tie the noose on in a knowing way
As one that knots his necktie for a ball.
But just as all the neighbours – on the wall –
Are drawing a long breath to shout ‘Hurray!’
The strangest whim has seized me…After all,
I think I will not hang myself to-day.

To-morrow is the time I get my pay –
I see my uncle’s sword is hanging in the hall –
I see a little cloud all pink and grey –
Perhaps the rector’s mother will not call.
I fancy that I heard from Mr Gall
That mushrooms can be cooked another way –
I have not read the works of Juvenal.
I think I will not hang myself to-day.

The world will have another washing-day;
The decadents decay, the pedants pall.
And H G Wells has found that children play
And Bernard Shaw discovered that they squall.
Rationalists are growing rational-
And in thick woods one finds a stream astray
So secret that the very sky seems small.
I think I will not hang myself to-day.


Prince, I can hear the trumpet of Germinal,
The tumbrils toiling up the terrible way.
Even to-day your royal head may fall.
I think I will not hang myself to-day.


This Japanese verse form, which emerged in the 16th century, consists of three lines of five, then seven, then five syllables. The subject matter is often related to Nature. Some writers decide not to stick rigidly to the five, seven, five form but remain true to the spirit of the haiku, which is all about paring down.

One of the most famous of the haiku by Matsuo Bashō is this:

old pond
a frog jumps
the sound of water

Another is:

the first cold shower
even the monkey seems to want
a little coat of straw

The form has been taken up by western writers. Here is a haiku by Jack Kerouac:

Snow in my shoe
Sparrow’s nest


How did this verse form get its name? Some say from a group of occasionally friendly, often competing poets who met regularly in the county of Limerick and developed this type of rhyme. Others point to the custom, during a convivial party, of various members being called on to make up a nonsense verse on the spot, with the rest of the party singing verses of a popular song ‘Will you come up to Limerick?’ to fill the gap.

It consists of five lines, with a rhyme scheme of aabba and a rum-ti-tum rhythm, as in:

There was a young lady of Niger
Who went for a ride on a tiger.
She came back from the ride
With the lady inside
And the smile on the face of the tiger.

And since the limerick often tends to the erotic if not the downright filthy:

While Titian was mixing rose madder,
His model reclined on a ladder.
Her position to Titian
Suggested coition,
So he climbed up the ladder and ‘ad ‘er.

And I have to thank Eamonn Hayes for these two refined examples.

There was a young man from Ardanne,
Who wrote verses whose lines didn’t scan,
When told it was so
He replied, ‘Yes, I know,
But I always try to fit as many syllables into the last line as I possibly can.’

And then:

There was a young lady of Exeter
So good looking that men craned their necks at her.
And a fellow called Dave
Was inspired to wave
The distinguishing mark of his sex at her.


In ancient literature, an ode was a poem that was destined to be sung, or adapted thus. In more modern times, it is a rhymed lyric of a lofty nature, both in style and subject matter.

Keats springs to mind immediately. Among his most famous odes are Ode to a Grecian Urn and this one, which begins thus:

Ode to a Nightingale

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thy happiness,
That thou, light-wingèd Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

O for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cooled a long age in the deep delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country-green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South!
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stainèd mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim…


There are various forms of sonnet, but all employ 14 lines. (Generally, the Italians use 11 syllables, the French 12 and the English 10.) One is the type the poet Wyatt used, following the example of Petrarch, and which every major English poet has used since. This type of sonnet consists of an octave rhymed abba abba, then a sestet ccd, ccd or cde cde.

But we are also very familiar with the sonnets of Shakespeare, who preferred three quatrains ending with a couplet: abab cdcd efef gg.

Here is his sonnet xviii.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O, no! it is an ever-fixèd mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Lover alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error, and on me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.


This is a tricky verse form, but a wonderfully stimulating challenge for the poet.

It normally consists of five three-lined stanzas and a final quatrain (four-lined stanza), with only two rhymes throughout. The first and third lines of the first stanza are repeated alternately in the succeeding stanzas as a refrain and form a final couplet in the quatrain.

The most famous example from modern times is probably that of Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, by Dylan Thomas.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how brigh
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight,
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


And here’s another, less well known, example, by William Empson.

Missing Dates

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
It is not the effort nor the failure tires.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is not your system or clear sight that mills
Down small to the consequence a life requires;
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

They bled an old dog dry yet the exchange rills
Of young dog blood gave but a month’s desires
The waste remains, the waster remains and kills.

It is the Chinese tombs and the slag hills
Usurp the soil, and not the soil retires.
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

Not to have fire is to be a skin that shrills.
The complete fire is death. From partial fires
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is the poems you have lost, the ills
From missing dates, at which the heart expires.
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.



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